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This summer, it’s time for a step forward

(One toxic-free sandal at a time)

When I think of flip-flops, I think of summer: sun, beaches and scorching temperatures. I don’t think of them as dangerous (except when I occasionally trip while wearing them; what can I say? I’m clumsy!). Most of us would probably agree that flip-flops certainly don’t seem like the type of product that requires laboratory testing for health impacts.

But this summer, we did just that! We packed up a sparkly hot pink children’s flip-flop sandal from a big box store, and sent it to our friends at the Ecology Center in Michigan to find out whether these shoes contain toxic chemicals called phthalates.

Phthalates are hormone-disrupting chemicals that are used to soften plastic, and found in hundreds of products throughout our homes: shower curtains, shampoo, flooring… and yes, even shoes.

The result? Not only did these innocuous-looking sandals contain phthalates, but the plastic strapping that keeps a foot from slipping off the shoe is 48 % phthalates. So nearly half of the material that rubs against a child’s skin all day long is almost half made up of a hormone-disrupting chemical – one that easily absorbs through skin and causes health problems like birth defects, asthma, and learning disabilities. It’s no wonder that when we tested 25 people in Maine for phthalates this past spring, all 25 found phthalates in their bodies, some at levels far higher than the national norm.

If you’re like me, stories like these can wear you down. It’s both scary and exhausting to realize that the manufacturers who make our stuff will allow consumers to unknowingly surround ourselves with toxic products. Even for the most avid label readers among us, it can feel impossible to avoid toxic chemicals—especially given the money and power behind the giant chemical manufacturing industry.

A changing landscape provides new opportunities

Here’s the uplifting side of this particular story: Advocates have a new hand of cards to play that’s better than ever before. That’s not to say that getting billion dollar industries to stop using hormone-disrupting phthalates will ever be easy – but there are a bunch of positive forces pushing in our favor:

  • Thanks to changing international laws, we have new leverage. A European Union ban on three phthalates will take effect by February 2015. That means that in a matter of months, international companies that sell products with phthalates in the US will need to comply with new, more stringent rules in the EU. For consumers and advocates in the US, this gives us a great opportunity to ask manufacturers: Why are we exposed to toxic chemicals when you have the ability to keep European kids safe? The louder and more publicly we can pose this question, the better.
  • The science supports the growing consensus that toxic phthalates are a threat to health. In 2008, a new federal report was ordered by the federal the Consumer Product Safety Commission – the same organization that has already banned three phthalates in children’s products. The Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel (or CHAP) released the report earlier this summer, and it’s findings are critical in making the case.

The report unequivocally states that yes, phthalates are dangerous enough to be phased out of children’s products. The report also recommends that other existing regulatory agencies take action on phthalates across the board – not only kid’s products.

  • More and more authoritative agencies are voicing their agreement on the dangers of phthalates – and this will help to pave the way for further restrictions. Some state governments, plus the aforementioned federal Consumer Product Safety Commission and the European Union are all signaling to industry leaders that the smartest move is to abandon phthalates as quickly as possible. With these precedents already in place, it will become more possible to pass new policies in other states and send out stronger signals to the market that it’s financially smart to abandon toxic phthalates.
  • Government and industry leaders are now facing enormous public pressure to take meaningful action on phthalates. In our northeast corner of the country, a group of 80 Maine citizens recently descended upon a public hearing before the state Department of Environmental Protection to demand that the agency require the disclosure of phthalates in consumer products. This sentiment has been echoed across the nation.

A two-pronged approach

The stage is set! So what can we do to ensure that in future summers, our flip-flops will be phthalate-free?

Together, we need to keep building and amplifying the pressure on the two major entities that have the power to change this system:

  1. The people in government who should be representing us: any government entity that has the authority to take action to prevent exposure to phthalates should be pressured to act. Here in Maine, our Kid-Safe Products law authorizes the state to name phthalates as priority chemicals and take steps to protect consumers. That’s why we’re campaigning loudly to get Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection to use those tools to first require disclosure of phthalates.
  2. Big national retailers with big market power: Retailers like the big box store where we bought our phthalate-riddled hot pink sandal need to know that consumers like you demand safer products on store shelves. Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families’ Mind the Store Campaign focuses tremendous consumer pressure on the largest retailers to deliver this message: Use your market power to require that the big manufacturers supplying your stores remove toxic chemicals like phthalates.

This past spring, dozens of Mainers marched to their local Walgreens stores as part of a nation-wide day of action, and asked Walgreens to remove toxic chemicals like phthalates from the products they sell. 50 simultaneous events all over the country took place at Walgreens stores that day, which have finally led to an initial response from Walgreens, as well as other retail companies who are feeling the heat.

take action mind the store

Raise your voice as a voter, and a shopper

If we’re going to win the right to be phthalate-free, we need to use all the tools available to us. That means taking advantage of the possibility to change international, national and state laws, using the new scientific data, and building a resounding drumbeat for change. We must continue to come at this problem from two sides at once: pressuring the market to play by better rules, and pressuring our state and federal governments to strengthen the rules.

The toxic chemicals we found in that sparkly pink flip-flop (and the toxic chemicals we find when we test our own bodies) signal that we’ve got work to do. Luckily, today we have a great hand of cards against phthalates. Now we just need you to join our movement! Make sure your candidates running for state and national office hear that this issue is really important to you as a voter. And join the Mind the Store campaign so that big box stores continue hearing loud and clear that consumers want transparency and healthy choices.